BY RANDY UENS
When you meet Manon Rhéaume you notice a few things right away. First, she looks like she could still jump in the net and play well. Secondly, as engaging and congenial as she comes across, you get a real sense of her competitive spirit and her passion for the game of hockey.
She also completely understands how inspirational her story truly is and she has embraced it with that same determination and work ethic she displayed when she was a dominating force in women’s hockey.
What she is remembered for is even bigger than her career as an Olympian and World Champion. On September 23, 1992 Manon Rhéaume was the first female hockey player to suit up in an NHL hockey game as she tended the net for the Tampa Bay Lightning during its exhibition season.
At the time, people thought that this was a publicity stunt rigged up to promote the fledgling Florida franchise in the NHL. But that simply wasn’t the case.
Tony Crisp was working for Hockey Canada at the time and was asked about his dad’s decision to play Rhéaume in that exhibition game. Tony‘s father was Terry Crisp, coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning at the time.
She flat out earned it. She was that good,” the younger Crisp said adamantly.
Rhéaume’s story is nothing less than remarkable and it’s no surprise that it has been made into a book, while a movie about her life is in progress.
For Rhéaume, her NHL appearance was just another example of her drive to play the sport she loved at the highest level. This was something she had strived for her entire life.
“At the time I didn’t realize that it was a big deal,” she said. “I knew the media were making a big deal, but when you’re young, you’re just playing hockey because you love the game.”
Growing up, Rhéaume started playing hockey with her brothers and the boys in the area. Her father was a coach, and his team desperately needed a goalie. Despite her mother’s initial reservations, she started playing with her brother’s team. Rhéaume learned pretty quickly that, despite her abilities, she was often cut from teams simply because she was a girl.
Although it was frustrating for her, she was undeterred. Rhéaume continued to work hard and hone her skills to prove she could compete with the boys. Despite the many ups and downs on her journey through hockey, it didn’t take long for her to make a name for herself.
In 1984, she became the first girl to play in the famed Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament. Seven years later, she made history again, becoming the first woman to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, suiting up for the Trois-Rivières Draveurs.
When the Lightning came calling the following year, it was an opportunity Rhéaume could not pass up.
“So many times when I was younger, I was good enough to make the top level. I was good enough to be on the team, but they didn’t want me because I was a girl,” she said.
Rhéaume finally had a coach that believed in her in bantam. She was clearly the dominant goalie as the team was moving into the critical midget years ahead of the Quebec Major Junior League draft. It was determined that she should not take the spot of a male player as it was felt she should not take the spot of a male player in their draft year.
This adversity is what drove her to work harder and seize opportunities when presented. At one point she was forced to drive a couple of hours into Montreal to play with a women’s recreational league at 10:30 or 11:30 p.m. at night just to get ice because she could not find a male team to play on as she was getting ready to go to NHL camp.
“When that opportunity came about I thought to myself, maybe if I would have got all those chances before, I would’ve played four years of major junior, but I didn’t have all those chances before. I’m not going to live my life with regrets so I went for it,” she said.
Rhéaume remembers being very nervous as she walked from her dressing room to the ice. But once she stepped out onto the ice, her nerves subsided.
“The butterflies all went away and it was like I forgot I was playing in an NHL game,” she said. “It was just like I was in the place I had been my entire life since I was five. I just went out and played hockey.”
In the first Tampa Bay inter squad mini-games; Rhéaume did not let in any goals. It was very clear from that performance she belonged and deserved the shot at the exhibition game.
In her first period appearance against the St. Louis Blues, Rhéaume faced nine shots and stopped seven of them, giving up goals to Jeff Brown and future Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan.
While it might have felt like just another game for Rhéaume in the moment, in the years that have followed, she has realized it was so much more.
“I didn’t know that it would inspire so many people,” she said. “It was much later in my life that I realized it was a big deal and I did impact people with my story and inspired people to want to do the same.”
After this initial NHL opportunity Rhéaume carved out a career in men’s minor professional leagues playing in the IHL, ECHL among others. At times the life of a female pro is a little lonely, dressing alone, rooming alone and subsequently eating alone at times.
“In general the other players treated me well, kind of like a little sister,” she recalled. “I was able to compete at this level because my strength was reading the plays as they happened. I could react well because of this ability to read plays as a goalie.”
Rhéaume went on to have a stellar international women’s career that included gold medals and world championships in the fledgling international women’s tournaments.
When it all ended Rhéaume recognized how important her accomplishments were. The book by Angie Bullaro called Breaking the Ice is a product of this understanding that her story is inspirational to so many people.
“When Angie contacted me and said she wanted to do a book and a movie about inspiring women’s stories in sports I knew I was in,” said Rhéaume. “I always knew that I wanted to inspire young athletes to strive to be the best they can be. If you have a dream, go after your dream. If you are passionate about something and you work hard you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. “
Rhéaume reflects that for her the most important thing to remember is that you do not have to fit into a mould to do the things you want to do.
“I was the exact opposite of what an NHL goalie should look like. My size, my gender, I speak French, I didn’t understand English that well, but I still went for it. That’s what I want to tell people, go for your dreams.”
Today Rhéaume continues this work by coaching with the Detroit Little Caesars organization, which is the minor hockey arm, supported by the Detroit Red Wings.
She has two boys; Dylan St. Cyr a goalie in the NCAA with Notre Dame and a second son Dakota Rhéaume who is a 2006 birth year and plays forward in AAA.
The book written by Angie Bullaro is available through Simon & Schuster Canada. The movie is currently on hold awaiting the pandemic pause to subside to restart production. To hear the full interview with Manon Rhéaume, please download the Total Sports Quinte podcast wherever you get your podcasts such as Spotify, ITunes and I HeartRadio.